Best Actress 2009
Winner: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Nominees: Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

The Field: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
We're sort of teetering on the halfway point between two and three stars, but here's how I elected to come at the problem: I went ahead and erred on the side of generosity for Streep, Mirren, and Bullock, each of whom I was briefly tempted to downgrade one star from where I've classified them here. On their own merits, it's hard to deny that Streep does accomplish quite a bit for Julie & Julia, that Mirren saves what she can from the stunted slog of The Last Station, and that Bullock is often the only thing standing between The Blind Side and complete, vile unwatchability. But this repeated sense that they aren't just stuck in films that don't deserve them but are fundamentally mismanaging their talents to even choose such projects puts a real damper on the collective enthusiasm—particularly since, a week out from the ceremony, two of these three are the consensus frontrunners for the trophy. From my point of view, just like last year, what we've got here are a revelatory turn from a young performer who handily leads the pack, a festival breakout whom one immediately wants to see recast in even sturdier films, and three big stars who are almost constitutionally unable to be unrewarding on screen but from whom one really can't help expecting a little more. Maybe I'm being a bit stingy, but too many more of these years in a row and it will be hard to remain such a loyalist of this category. (Comment Here)

Ranking Oscar's Ballot
My Pick:
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire ★ ★ ★ ★
Even if you haven't witnessed the polar contrast of the actress's unflappable perkiness and regular, upper-register giggles in her public appearances, Sidibe's formidable moroseness as Claireece "Precious" Johnson comes across as a powerful achievement. Not for every actor or performance would this be tempting praise. Indeed, for a short while into the movie, I worried that Sidibe's muffled downcastness was going to make the character entirely inaccessible, and that this untried performer was going to occupy the space where a sympathetic protagonist should exist without quite shining a light on one. (Quinton Aaron's director-enforced dramatic inertia in The Blind Side exemplifies how easily this can happen.) Even the brightened version of Precious who appears in those early cutaways to her BET dreamlife fall short of proving that we aren't going to witness a bluntly happy/sad characterization. To me, the first sign that Sidibe was capable of more arrived in her bored but exasperated truth-telling to her school principal about how she got pregnant: "I had sex, Mrs. Lichtenstein," she deadpans, illuminating Sidibe's potential for combing out subtle gradations and conjuring real personality from within the character's perma-gloom. The obstacle and the near-miracle of the performance from this point forward emerge from the fact that Sidibe has a fairly narrow emotional range in which to work (and she holds with conviction to that narrow range, refusing, for example, to be incongruously elated by the arrival of her child), and yet she nonetheless manages to broadcast when Precious is being mischievous, insolent, self-doubting, superior, distractable, suspicious, morbid, or unrelievedly depressed. Sidibe makes clear that it's Precious herself, not the screenwriter or the director, who insists on this monolithic armature of frowning implacability—basically as a self-protective mechanism, through which she nonetheless struggles over and over again (though not always) to make herself known and felt to others. It's exciting when the actress and the character drop their guard altogether, merrily stealing food or physically bulldozing a classmate who pisses her off or fighting back against a mother whom it's usually just easier to relent to. When she melts into tears in her writing class, the actress hits a rock-bottom despair without being histrionic in a way the rest of the performancew wouldn't admit, and I like that Sidibe's Precious actually gets more crestfallen when she approaches a potential deliverance than when she's hunkered deep in the penitentiary of her life. Sidibe holds the screen magnificently in these flashes of uncowed temper, but it's just as fascinating to watch her running out the clock of a social worker's interview; or lying in her bed in a maternity ward tacitly marveling at all the new friends who have bothered to come see her, even if she isn't fully at ease with them yet; or sitting in the back of Ms. Rain's class, silently deciding whether to speak, much less what to say, even as Precious perpetually re-bricks and re-mortars her usual edifice of looking like she's barely there, or doesn't care. (Comment Here)

From There:
Carey Mulligan, An Education ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Mulligan was 22 years old during the filming of An Education, yet there isn't a moment in the performance when I doubted that her character, Jenny, is only 16. Even more impressively, Mulligan endows Jenny with an eloquence, polish, and perspicacity that should make her seem older but somehow don't. There's a greenness to Jenny that still leaves her wide-open for the edifications of the classroom and the orchestra rehearsal (even if these have started to lose their luster) and makes her even more wide-eyed at the unfolding open-endedness of the larger world, despite the kind of native sagacity that cannot be easily duped. Several scenes begin with Jenny looking dazzled or jazzed at something or someone she's witnessing for the first time, and as intoxicating as it is to see Mulligan steward the character so gently into a swift, fluent, mostly confident inhabitation of these unfamiliar realms, it's even lovelier that you cannot quite tell when Jenny passes from being awestruck to regaining her poise. Through Mulligan's elegant voice and facial features, and her equal grasp of the character's mental and emotional life (including the increasing frictions) between the two, we are able to experience Jenny's "education" as a series of wave-rippled sensations of the provocative, the overfamiliar, the foreboding, and the entrancing, themselves more excitingly overlapped in some of Mulligan's line readings and reaction shots than they are in the script, or in the flatter performances of key co-stars, or in the dull direction of Lone Scherfig. Indeed, given the palpable joy of observing an actress who is so obviously a creature of constant, layered thought, and given the huge boons furnished to the film by stray moments when Mulligan's Jenny obviously recognizes the danger in Sarsgaard's David and in her own heedless accession to his lifestyle, it's a shame to have to acknowledge just how much the performance is finally constrained by the direction. Scherfig can't get enough of a certain kind of winsome close-up of her charismatic heroine, and she cuts to them relentlessly, even when there's evidence in the same scenes (often in longer shots) that Mulligan is exploring much richer, more ambivalent affects than gleaming, premature worldly-wisdom. Even in this respect, it would be nice to report that the blemishes in the performance were fostered only in the editing room, but the compromises extend further. Scherfig, seemingly entranced by the very real possibility of having discovered a latter-day Audrey Hepburn, can't or won't stop herself from freezing Mulligan into that mold, and Mulligan, whether or not it's fair to expect it of her, hasn't put up enough of a fight for Jenny's complexities or her culpabilities in what befalls her. As the script veers further into the climactic passages of inevitable revelation, Mulligan allows Jenny to become a primly scolding voicebox for everyone else's failings, without proferring nearly enough sense that the character is rationalizing in a very teenaged way, or indulging herself massively by trading on the adults' understandable tendency to view Jenny as "wise beyond her years." In her scenes with Emma Thompson—i.e., the actress and the character who are least likely to fall for this "your fault, not mine" take on the material—Mulligan retreats completely into the default mode of gamine irresistibility, but it leaves a sour taste. She forecloses the insights that are broadcast earlier in the performance, everywhere from her flawlessly gentle handling of Rosamund Pike's bizarre autisms (Jenny is smart but doesn't get off on being smarter than other people—at least, not at first) to her intuitive recognition that Sarsgaard's fruit-wielding seducer harbors a sexual immaturity greater than that of any virgin. Mulligan emerges here as a truly exciting young actress, suited for classic as well as contemporary roles, and I can imagine any number of parts in which I'd rejoice to see her cast. She has unfakeable gifts, but her lucidity and tremendous on-screen appeal should be starting points for her characterizations, not beatific ends in themselves. She nimbly protects Jenny from being reduced to some older person's fantasy of a 16-year-old girl, but she is either less able or less inclined to shield herself from being reduced to some fawning filmmaker's limited but market-savvy vision of the next great breakthrough in English Roses. I'm as taken by the Rose as anyone else is, but I'm eager for the Actress to call more of the shots her next time out. (Comment Here)

Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
When Meryl Streep appeared on The View to promote this film, one of the excitable hosts rhapsodized that "you're not just doing an imitation of Julia Child...," and, bless her, Streep interrupted in a slightly hushed register to say, "Well, I am doing an imitation." Clearly, it isn't only an imitation, and another refrain in Streep's J&J publicity, that she's not playing Julia Child so much as Julie Powell's sanctified vision of Julia Child, proves instructive here. As we all know, Streep has become unprecedently beloved in the last few years, by the standards of her own career or that of any other middle-aged actress who doesn't have the sheen of Golden Age mythology working on her side, and who's still engaged in the active business of selling tickets. Julie & Julia, though, feels to me like Streep's first performance to take shape as an implied essay on her own belovedness. Lying in wait for an audience that thinks of Julia Child as a kind of adorable, nostalgically laminated eccentric with odd vowels, and prepared to accept true but slightly abstracted theorems about her importance (she changed cooking forever, she ensconced and expanded the work of the American housewife as both an art and a joy), Streep displaces the audience's affection for Julia into totally new terms of endearment. Her ardent, goosey Julia was an object of matrimonial adoration, a fruity American livewire among the French keepers of culinary culture, a woman who is more disarming for her unfettered displays of pique (blowing raspberries to the school examiner) and of satisfaction (cracking the lobster, pulverizing the onions) than for the kinds of rhetorical, official-history Accomplishments that could easily turn Julie & Julia into a kind of wildly disproportionate Mt. Rushmore of Cooking, like a statue commissioned in mutual praise of Patrick Henry and the Wonkette. All of this energy is as infectious as Streep Energy usually is on screen (if you leave out Mamma Mia!) and there's feeling and intellect in the way she totally scuttles the question of whether she's built the performance from the outside in (shoes, vocal inflections, bobbing torso) or from the inside out (gusto, effusiveness, an intuitive attraction to achievement). But many of these same factors that make her Julia a pleasure to watch, and a workable partner to Amy Adams's more mundane Julie, also feel like ways to downscale and fatten out the performance so that it won't sink her costar or her movie. It's also true, and surely not coincidental, that Streep offers this take on Julia Child when the actress herself seems most determined to recontextualize her celebrity away from high-minded, august exceptionalism and into the realm of exuberance, indefatigability, wifely and motherly stamina, and buoyant connections with other women, of all tastes. The performance, enjoyable though it is, doesn't really go anywhere, not least because Ephron denies Streep any chance to explore the dark but tantalizing truth behind the project, which is that Julia didn't much care for Julie's approach to imitation-as-flattery. I'll run, I'll hustle to any movie whose climax involves a woman taking unbridled personal pleasure in meeting a personal goal, and Julia's unpackaging of her at-last completed cookbook is a lovely moment. But it's dimmed just a little by all the uncontained mirth that's become pretty status quo throughout the film, with its repeated scenes of Streep gamely moaning about how "thees boook will naaaaiver bih feenished!" And when she opts for something like subtext, as in every scene or unspoken moment when Julia yearns for a child, Streep's approach is worryingly broad. Is her director too clumsy? Is she unconsciously playing down to the audience, making sure we get it? Is she consciously playing up to the audience, assuring them/us that even the most rarefied celebrities would give it all up for the "common" dream of childbearing? Or is Julia Child, for better and worse, simply incapable of a subtly played emotion? Upon leaving Julie & Julia, I chalked up my very tempered enthusiasm to a feeling that Julia Child, like Truman Capote, is a near-impossible persona to inhabit without looking and, crucially, sounding like you're overdoing it. But I've been back to Capote repeatedly to learn more things about the character, and if I ever take a second look at Infamous, I suspect I'd do the same. I've rewatched about half of Julie & Julia, and I had exactly the same good time that I did on the first outing, which is a pro and a con: the film, and Streep's performance, are lush vessels of positive feeling, but what you see at first, even in just her first few scenes, feels an awful lot like what you're ever going to get. (Comment Here)

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
With so many small adjustments, it would be okay. If Sandra were gunning for an Emmy instead of an Oscar, this kind of hokey-inspirational drama (read: blithely condescending pap) would feel fully at home within the general register of those races, and if she won, she'd still get to make one of her wonderful, genuine, smart but self-effacing speeches that are only reminding us why we like her so much, despite a career based on two parts movies we can't remember, one part movies she'd like us not to remember, and one part really solid work in a variety of popular genres (comedies, women's films, thrillers) that would have lifted her to an even stronger career years ago if Hollywood weren't so unaccountably negligent of its own glorious legacies in precisely these traditions. Her work in While You Were Sleeping would have been nominated back when Hollywood honored comedies, not just by short-listing them for Oscars but by caring if they were even good. Her admirable directness, her flirting with rougher edges, and her comfortable handle on the audience's sympathy in a picture like Hope Floats would have augured more projects where she got to be steely, frank, and nonetheless open to romance. She could have worked up to an Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, if those still got greenlit. At the very least, there would have been a dozen Blind Sides between then and now, and the arrival of this one wouldn't feel like such a false event: Sandra Bullock can really act! Well, of course she can, within limits she wisely adheres to in her "big" movies and which she has tested in exciting ways in her recent spate of smaller ones, like Crash and Infamous. And so even at that, let's imagine that she got nominated for single-handedly shouldering a nobly intentioned (read: grossly incoherent) drama past the $200 million mark, and we could call it her Pillow Talk nomination, and be perfectly glad to lend her the adjective "Oscar-nominated" for the rest of her life, as much in gratitude for entertaining us so consistently as for the A-OK but, let's say, sub-Streepian way she walks the walk of Leigh Anne Tuohy. Sadly, though, it's looking more and more like this nomination is her Farmer's Daughter nomination, positioned to swipe the prize from an admittedly mediocre field that nonetheless proffers several better choices. I'm still predicting a narrow victory for Streep, but follow me anyway: the backlash against Bullock would be long and unforgiving. Everyone would be screeching, with some justification, about how each scene where Bullock impersonates a mercenary interior decorator offers a rude proof of an unready, dress-up approach to the character. The scenes with the carpy Society friends are too full of easy choices. Bullock doesn't pretend for a moment that Leigh Anne has any rapport with these putative friends, and if she plays to the audience less broadly than she might have, what she delivers is still a series of pre-fabricated beats: "I'm the good guy!" "Hiss at them!" The confrontation with the layabouts on the stoop in Michael's old neighborhood is satisfying in the most baseline, popcorn way, but still plays like dinner-theater Erin Brockovich. Bullock sells the movie very well, and it's not an easy movie to sell, so she deserves some credit. She and Tim McGraw find an easy rapport that doesn't pretend to be a perfect marriage, but it looks like a good marriage. They don't push to unnecessary extremes, it's easy to spend time with them, and I like the short, arrogant way in which she refers to him sleeping on the downstairs couch "only when he's bad." But selling the film, however tall an order, isn't the same thing as deepening or even finding a character, so assuming that she wins, or even if she doesn't, this feels like an important moment to cleave the two halves of what Oscar represents. Let's rejoice in the previously-impalpable fact that Hollywood really, really loves Sandra Bullock, and why wouldn't they? I'm glad they do, and I think she deserves it. She's a trouper, and she's obviously committed to getting even better. Hopefully they'll write her some superior vehicles, or she'll develop some for herself, where she'll get to do what she really does best in more auspicious surroundings, with compelling co-stars, top-flight directors, and an eye on durability rather than fast-food comfort. Best wishes, as far as that all goes—but is this really great acting? Don't we kind of know the answer to that? (Comment Here)

Helen Mirren, The Last Station ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Okay. So over here you've got Leo Tolstoy in all of his accumulated literary prestige, Christopher Plummer in all of his salad-days affective pull, James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti duking it out as two different kinds of disciples, at least a few dozen ascetic Tolstoy devotees, and every single line of the script that goes something like "What a harpy!" or "That awful mule of a wife!" or "Pestilent, pus-leaking, tchotchke-worshipping Sycorax of the Russian glade!" That's all one side. On the other side, you have Helen Mirren—at least as endeared to the target demographic as Plummer is, but she must know she's stuck playing the character everyone is supposed to hate. Two avenues suggest themselves: 1) really make yourself contemptible, and flaunt all the ways in which The Last Station depends on stale and frankly misogynist clichés and asks them to stand in for dramatic conflict, or 2) work cleverly against the grain to make the audience love you, and reframe the whole movie as an act of grand larceny which seems to have no motivation for existing except to get people cooing, "I just love that Helen Mirren!" Now, I started typing out that sentence so that I could say: points to Mirren for not quite following either path, at least insofar as her bumptious, broadly comic, Fruit Rollup approach to Countess Sofya is not just an act of self-salvation but a savvy, even an ambitious idea for how to redeem the whole movie. The Last Station would have way more potential as a Shakespeare in Love-style literary comedy than it does as a basically straight and badly hamstrung drama. For some reason, Broadway has been getting the message that big-ticket prestige packages like God of Carnage and The Norman Conquests can good and well be played for laughs, but December movies (you know the kind) are almost always more tentative about this. Mirren flopping about on the floor or throwing Springer-style shade at her impossible, eye-rolling "bitch of a daughter" is as close to comedy as we're going to get, and I found it impossible not to thank Dame Mirren even for this. But as comedies go, this is pretty low, and even more arbitrary. It's never clear why the world needs a niche-audience farce about how everyone hated Tolstoy's wife except for Tolstoy, especially since the script simply doesn't furnish the kinds of scenes that would allow Mirren or Plummer or anyone else to really dive into that wreckage. So instead, we get different wreckage, which takes me back to my earlier impulse: does Mirren deserve the exculpatory pass I was setting up for her? Does the movie or the performance exist for any reason but to make people coo at that saucy old dish, Helen "Fish Out Those Old Teats" Mirren? She's a devoted enough performer that the charge doesn't stick 100%. There are moments in The Last Station where Mirren's Sofya really does appear to be contemplating whether she's hastening the death of her beloved, or whether in clinging to the man she adores she's losing her whole family. And her exasperation with "the Movement" in her earliest scenes is rather glorious in its unabashed impatience. She satisfyingly led the way for what I thought would be a well-earned duel between self-righteous dogma and avowedly hedonistic skepticism. But mostly her performance is a cartoon, and not the good kind. It's not Pixar. It's not even Cars. It's a hog-tied, half-desperate act of triage on a script that doesn't merit the effort or (worse) allow any room to the artists inclined to try. All this nomination does for Mirren, then, is make her seem like one of those performers who's nominated purely by reflex, which isn't good for her or for the Academy. Hopefully she follows up soon with something stellar, and then this Last Station citation can turn into that Oscar-dork stumper, where you're reminded during some distant-future awards ceremony by some tragic, invisible intercom-narrator of someone's overall tally of nods and you can't immediately remember one or two of the movies that drew the accolades. Judi Dench got one of these. Her film was full of naked chorus-girls. Mirren's is full of literary idolators who wear peasant smocks, crawl in and out of dirty tents, and cry a lot when Tolstoy dies, while everyone else strokes a fake-looking beard—but it all comes down to the same thing. (Comment Here)

Who gets your vote in this field, and on my dream ballot below? VOTE HERE!

My Favorites from 2009:
(As determined by years of Oscar eligibility)

My Pick: Tilda Swinton, Julia
Nominees: Abbie Cornish, Bright Star
Nominees: Maggie and Tilly Hatcher, Beeswax
Nominees: Catalina Saavedra, The Maid
Nominees: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire

Honorable Mentions: Kim Ok-vin, Thirst; Arta Dobroshi, Lorna's Silence; Meryl Streep, It's Complicated; Hiam Abbass, Lemon Tree; Ellen Page, Whip It; Juliette Binoche, Summer Hours; Kristen Stewart, Adventureland; Carey Mulligan, An Education; Audrey Tautou, Coco Before Chanel; Maria Heiskanen, Everlasting Moments; Isabelle Fuhrman, Orphan

Also-Rans (alpha): Amy Adams, Julie & Julia; Amy Adams, Sunshine Cleaning; Hatice Aslan, Three Monkeys; Kim Basinger, The Burning Plain; Nicole Beharie, American Violet; Emily Blunt, Sunshine Cleaning; Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria; Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side; Penélope Cruz, Broken Embraces; Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer; Nisreen Faour, Amreeka; Vera Farmiga, Orphan; Katie Featherston, Paranormal Activity; Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist; Paulina Gaitan, Sin Nombre; Ginnifer Goodwin, He's Just Not That Into You; Sasha Grey, The Girlfriend Experience; Tracey Heggins, Medicine for Melancholy; Taraji P. Henson, Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All by Myself; Nina Hoss, Jerichow; Nina Hoss, A Woman in Berlin; Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds; Jennifer Lawrence, The Burning Plain; Margarita Levieva, Spread; Alison Lohman, Drag Me to Hell; Helen Mirren, The Last Station; Sophie Okonedo, Skin; Maria Onetto, The Headless Woman; Gwyneth Paltrow, Two Lovers; Michelle Pfeiffer, Chéri; Natalie Portman, Brothers; Irina Potapenko, Revanche; Julia Roberts, Duplicity; Saoirse Ronan, The Lovely Bones; Maya Rudolph, Away We Go; Ursula Strauss, Revanche; Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia; Charlize Theron, The Burning Plain; Rachel Weisz, The Brothers Bloom

Gourmet Prospects: Brenda Blethyn, London River; Martina Gusman, Lion's Den; Yolande Moreau, Séraphine; Ursula Werner, Cloud 9; Robin Wright Penn, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Further Research: Hilary Swank, Amelia

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